The Spanish Revolution, Past and Future: Grandeur and Poverty of Anarchism;How the Working Class Takes Over (or Doesn’t), Then and Now, (an article by Loren Goldner, and my response)

Here’s the article:

This is a good recap of the revolution and its demise, and a good discussion of the theoretical issues brought into the light by both, so hats off to Loren. And as Marxist critiques of anarchism go, it is far better than most, certainly more civil. However it still bears the impress of the climate of Marxist/Leninist opinion from which it emerges, and from which it never fully escapes. So what follows is one anarchist’s critique, offered in the spirit of Left solidarity.

For so long now Marxism and anarchism have been traveling on parallel tracks that even the most nimble of analysts would be unable to span the divide and arrive at an objective assessment. Part of the problem is that since the Marx/Bakunin controversy there have been competing interpretations of important revolutionary events. There is a Leninist history of the Russian Revolution, and an anarchist one, and they couldn’t be more different. Reading Loren’s essay, good as it generally is, it is clear, particularly considering whom he cites, that he is not trying to view the revolution from both tracks. For instance, he states that Russian peasants gave only grudging support to Bolshevism. If one reads the anarchist literature, the Bolsheviks didn’t even get that. He says that the workers took power in Russia and Spain. This might seem to be a non-sectarian statement, but the essence of the anarchist critique of Leninism is that the workers didn’t take power in Russia, the Bolsheviks did. And once they did they immediately began shutting down institutions of workers’ power. Lenin ordered the dissolution of the postal soviet within days of taking power. Others soon followed if their loyalty to the Bolshevik dictatorship was doubted. Lenin then began shutting down the factory committees, the workers’ plenipotentiaries, he brought the trade unions under government control etc. Given the role Lenin’s successor, Josef Stalin, played in undermining the Spanish Revolution, to state that workers came to power in Russia is to endorse the Bolshevik dictatorship. And if one is of that mind, then one cannot possibly view the Spanish Revolution impartially, as it main protagonists, the anarchists, were devoted to preventing a Bolshevik-style dictatorship in their revolution.

This is not to be too critical of Loren. For Leninists, Lenin is the father of the Russian Revolution, for many anarchists, myself included, he is its gravedigger. That’s quite a large gap to negotiate.

Loren says the Spanish revolution was anarchism’s great test, and it failed. Did it? Or was it overcome? How do we define failure? Did it implode due to its internal contradictions, its own theoretical inadequacy? As Loren points out, the Western bourgeois republics, the fascist states, and the Bolsheviks all intervened in ways which contributed to Franco’s victory, would a theoretically perfect revolutionary society (not that we could ever agree upon what that would be) have survived under these circumstances? If the Spanish Revolution were allowed to run its course and had collapsed then I think we could say it failed.

Loren suggests that the Spanish anarchists had made the revolution, beyond their wildest expectations, and did not know what to do with it. This is inaccurate on both counts. Revolution was the goal, and what they managed to achieve fell well short of expectations due to all the opposition they encountered as described in the essay. Moreover, in the IWA there was quite a lively discussion as to what should take place after the revolution. Plans were put forward by Isaac Puente and Pierre Besnard and others. Besnard’s won, but exigency dictated everything and indeed, as Loren correctly observed, the anarchist never succeeded in creating the federation they envisaged.

“According to Bolloten, a large part of the rural population resisted collectivization.” According to Frank Mintz, Gaston Leval, Augustin Souchy, and Sam Dolgoff, they did not. What is striking about this essay is that it relies so heavily on people who were hostile to anarchism. Whenever an anarchist is cited, it is always negative. I consider it one of the great successes of Spanish Anarchism that it reconciled the interests of town and country and “individualistas” and “collectivistas” without disadvantaging either. Compare this to the clusterfuck that was Bolshevik policy vis a vis the peasants and collectivization etc. Was this due to the errancy of the Marxist belief in the special emancipatory role of the proletariat?

Loren asks What if the CNT-FAI had replaced the skeletal bourgeois state with full working-class power in some approximation of immediately revocable delegates in “soviets” (class-wide institutions) as the ultimate “authority,” since worker control of industry and peasant collectives were already widespread?

So much has been said about the pre-Bolshevik soviets, and their viability as a revolutionary organ, that to do the subject justice would require too much space in this forum. However, it is of value to note Lenin’s critique, as it relates to Loren’s question. Originally Lenin was against the soviets as he of course favored the dictatorship of the party, his party. Then came his first “all power to the soviets” phase. In “On the Slogans,” he reversed himself again, only later to return to the pro-soviet position. When the vanguard’s chief theoretician and leader did stop vacillating long enough to alight on the anti-soviet position the reason he gave was that they were too bourgeois and as such could not function as a truly revolutionary body. Indeed the structure of the soviet system did allow for bourgeois representation. I agree with him–that is his anti-soviet point of view. In any case, the reasons the anarchists didn’t replace the bourgeois state with a soviet system was no doubt that they could see what had happened to the Russian Revolution and were determined not to let it happen in Spain. And history leaves little room for doubt that they were correct: unless you consider constructing a murderous police state and conducting primitive accumulation for eighty years and then handing the country back to capital a successful social revolution.

“World War I, which tore apart the large socialist parties of France, Italy, and Germany, giving rise after 1917 to mass Communist Parties there, and also posing a severe test for other anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements, where important sections and figures (Hervé in France, Kropotkin in Russia) rallied to the nationalist colors.”

I find it rich indeed that we keep hearing about the very few anarchists who supported the war when an incomparably larger percentage of Marxists did.

Kropotkin argued that Germany had surpassed its western rivals and had become the apex capitalist predator, and that its defeat would incite the revolution. Later, after the Tsar had been deposed, he argued that the war had become one of the bourgeois republics (which Russia had then become by his reckoning) against the feudal states, and the cause of the social revolution would be advanced by the latter’s defeat. Still later, after the German Navy mutinied and the revolution there had begun, he believed that Russia should reenter the war in the hope that Russia battering German capital from without, and the German working class hammering it from within, would surely lead to German and European revolution.

He was heavily criticized by anarchists for this position, and rightly so I believe (save the last), but pro-war sentiment was not a “severe test” for anarchism as so few supported it. And Kropotkin never rallied to nationalism. That is a gross distortion of his position and his legacy.

That Loren is so far off the mark here speaks to the aformentioned divergence of the competing Marxist and anarchist narratives. Lenin and Trotsky and Bolshevik historians to a person have insisted that the great mass of Russians wanted to withdraw from WW1. To read the anarchist and other non-Bolshevik literature of the day that was not the case. The anarchist Voline describes the attitude of rank-and-file revolutionaries in his The Unknown Revolution. (The relevant part of which has been published under the title 1917. I reviewed it here: He (and many others) insist that there was support for re-entering the war particularly after the uprising in Germany. After the Kaiser bolted, there was a good deal of pro-war sentiment which the Bolsheviks had to suppress.

Who do you believe, the Bolsheviks or the anarchists? Lenin or Voline? In any case, I don’t agree with Kropotkin’s position, but it doesn’t deserve the weight Marxists invariably give to it, nor was his opinion as unpopular as they would have us believe.

[In the review linked above there is also a description of an incident which highlights the divergence. Trotsky claims one thing, Voline another. I urge you to read it.]

In footnote 71, on centralization Loren writes: For example, the oil workers in the Gulf will not, by themselves, decide where to ship the oil, while having as much control over their conditions of work as is possible within a global coordination.

Here we are back to the two conceptions of the social revolution. For me and most of the anarchist whom I know, it is the full and final emancipation of labor and the direct assumption of political decision-making power by the toiling masses. That is no government above them overruling their decisions. Absent this, the revolution has not occurred. If these oil workers are taking orders from above in the Leninist fashion, then they are not free. Murray Bookchin described the Marxist assertion that centralization is needed to plan the economy as an “odious canard.” He was being much too charitable. I agree with Chomsky, if that’s what socialism is, then I will learn to live with capitalism. Production can be married to consumption by the workers themselves and their deputies. There is no need for bureaucratic overlords or party bosses.

There is an interesting scene in Angelica Balabanova’s Impressions of Lenin where, after working closely with him for some time, she confronts him and says something to the effect that “you manipulate the workers, you make promises to them that you have no intention of keeping, you lie to them all the time, is this what socialism is?” He says something like the workers had not yet sufficiently evolved toward socialism and were still backward and they have to be guided, and that whenever he lied to them it was for their benefit and not his.

That’s the best one can hope for from centralization. Even if there were any benefits (and there isn’t) the dangers outweigh them beyond calculation. The Bolsheviks proved that.

Re  “…many workers would be voting to abolish their own jobs as would be placing them under workers’ control, in an overall strategy, with all the labor power thus freed, to radically shorten the working day. This is a fundamental point which a developing revolutionary movement must communicate to broader layers of society today.”

The elimination of money resolves this problem. If after a revolution when all the people kept out of the workforce by capitalism enter it, if a payment system is in place the newcomers will be resented by the established workers. As the new workers absorb hours they take income away from the other workers. When money is abolished, nobody experiences a drop in income, just a reduction in workload, and the newcomers are welcomed, as was the case in Spain (at least in some quarters). One might research the Barcelona transit and telephone services for just how well they managed the transition. Money is counterrevolutionary.

As for adopting a revolutionary strategy, as Loren suggests, education is important, but perhaps we should also focus on pushing for reforms that might weaken capitalism and/or prepare the masses for the counterrevolution. For instance, once the revolution begins, international capital will shut off all imports. That means that we will not have enough fuel, people will run out of vital medicines. To the extent it is possible, we should force the state to increase the national reserves of petroleum, build more renewable energy capability etc.

Did the anarchists fail because they were as Loren puts it “taken in”? The anarchists entered into the popular front for the same reasons its Marxists supporters did. Frederica Montseny said that “fighting fascism was too important to be sacrificed to our [anarchist] ideals.” Entering the government was a mistake, as those who did came to believe, if a bit too late, but would the revolution have fared better if all the anarchists have clung to their principles? I doubt it. They had to deal with two forms of reaction: Franco and the fascists and Stalin and the Bolsheviks. They never had a chance really. Perhaps if the Red Army had reentered the war and smashed the German bourgeoisie…

Thanks, Loren, for an excellent synopsis, and a great discussion.

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